I was challenged the other day to consider the word “hospitality” in a much deeper sense. As the Warden of a retreat house you would think that I comprehend what hospitality is all about and strive to produce it here at Launde Abbey. But the conversation invited me to look again and I realised in the looking how narrow my understanding of the word is.
Hospitality should be a Christian virtue, we are told, particularly towards the stranger. One is invited to give hospitality, a meal, a bed for the night. But the other side of hospitality is receiving. Are we taught that it is a Christian virtue to receive hospitality?
The Church Army has come up with the idea of “Reverse Hospitality” (Can Reverse Hospitality be Effective in Christian Ministry Today? By Jeremy M Sorsie). The basic idea being that instead of inviting someone into your home you receive hospitality from them by being a guest in their home, and thereby provide a situation of meeting where mission might take place. We certainly see Jesus using this technique with the Woman at the Well in John 4, staying with Zacchaeus in Luke 19 and in the many meals he has in peoples’ houses, from Pharisees to sinners and tax gatherers.
But thinking about the phrase, “Giving and Receiving Hospitality,” made me consider that this is even bigger: an attitude for all of life, not just about entertaining or being entertained. When we give someone hospitality at Launde Abbey do we also expect to receive from them? After all here is a unique opportunity to meet someone, not in order to convert them or do anything to them, but simply to enjoy the privilege of encountering another human being. What might I receive from the people coming today? How often have I felt as a parish priest on a pastoral visit that I have received much more from a visit to a parishioner than I have given?
Is hospitality in the end one of the most profound attitudes we can offer life? Is it not about trying to have an open heart and mind to everything that comes towards us, from the bird in the air to the tired, short-tempered person on the phone; how do I practice hospitality with the gifts of others; how do I engage with aging; how do I face failure; how do I handle the fact that one day I will die? What do I receive from this new experience and what do I give. And how do I realise in the end that everything is gift?
If our life and our death is in the hands of God, a gift from God, then perhaps we really should be able to look at even the worst things that befall us and say, “How can I be hospitable to this? What can I receive even from this? And what can I give, even within this?” Christ on the cross is a symbol of profound hospitality, opening his arms to the world as if to say, “I give you all God’s love and forgiveness and I receive all your sin and pain. I do it willingly, because my whole life is about God’s hospitality.”